In the past four years, in fact, I’d switched schools three times. I’d lasted at Jackson High for only a couple of weeks before my mom, having spotted a misspelling and a grammatical error on my English syllabus, moved me to Perkins Day, a local private school. It was smaller and more academically rigorous, although not nearly as much as Kiffney-Brown, the charter school to which I transferred in junior year. Founded by several former local professors, it was elite – a hundred students, max – and emphasized very small classes and a strong connection to the local university, where you could take college-level courses for early credit. While I had a few friends at Kiffney-Brown, the ultracompetitive atmosphere, paired with so much of the curriculum being self-guided, made getting close to them somewhat difficult.
Not that I really cared. School was my solace, and studying let me escape, allowing me to live a thousand vicarious lives. The more my parents bemoaned Hollis’s lack of initiative and terrible grades, the harder I worked. And while they were proud of me, my accomplishments never seemed to get me what I really wanted. I was such a smart kid, I should have figured out that the only way to really get my parents’ attention was to disappoint them or fail. But by the time I finally realized that, succeeding was already a habit too ingrained to break.
My dad moved out at the beginning of my sophomore year, renting a furnished apartment right near campus in a complex mostly populated by students. I was supposed to spend every weekend there, but he was in such a funk – still struggling with his second book, his publication (or lack of it) called into question just as my mom’s was getting so much attention – that it wasn’t exactly enjoyable. Then again, my mom’s house wasn’t much better, as she was so busy celebrating her newfound single life and academic success that she had people over all the time, students coming and going, dinner parties every weekend. It seemed like there was no middle ground anywhere, except at Ray’s Diner.
I’d driven past it a million times but had never thought of stopping until one night when I was heading back to my mom’s around two A.M. My dad, like my mom, didn’t really keep close tabs on me. Because of my school schedule – one night class, flexible daytime seminar hours, and several independent studies – I came and went as I pleased, with little or no questioning, so neither of them really noticed that I wasn’t sleeping. That night, I glanced in at Ray’s, and something about it just struck me. It looked warm, safe almost, populated by people who at least I had one thing in common with. So I pulled in, went inside, and ordered a cup of coffee and some apple pie. I stayed until sunrise.
The nice thing about Ray’s was that even once I became a regular, I still got to be alone. Nobody was asking for more than I wanted to give, and all the interactions were short and sweet. If only all relationships could be so simple, with me always knowing my role exactly.
Back in the fall, one of the waitresses, a heavyset older woman whose name tag said JULIE, had peered down at the application I was working on as she refilled my coffee cup.
‘Defriese University,’ she read out loud. Then she looked at me. ‘Pretty good school.’
‘One of the best,’ I agreed.
‘Think you’ll get in?’
I nodded. ‘Yeah. I do.’
She smiled, like I was kind of cute, then patted my shoulder. ‘Ah, to be young and confident,’ she said, and then she was shuffling away.
I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t confident, I just worked really hard. But she had already moved on to the next booth, chatting up the guy sitting there, and I knew she didn’t really care anyway. There were worlds where all of this – grades, school, papers, class rank, early admission, weighted GPAs – mattered, and ones where they didn’t. I’d spent my entire life squarely in the former, and even at Ray’s, which was the latter, I still couldn’t shake it.
Being so driven, and attending such an unorthodox school, meant that I’d missed out on making all those senior moments that my old friends from Perkins Day had spent this whole last year talking about. The only thing I’d even considered was prom, and then only because my main competition for highest GPA, Jason Talbot, had asked me as a sort of peace offering. In the end, though, even that hadn’t happened, as he canceled last minute after getting invited to participate in some ecology conference. I told myself it didn’t matter, that it was the equivalent of those couch cushions and cul-de-sac bike rides all those years ago, frivolous and unnecessary. But I still kind of wondered, that night and so many others, what I was missing.
I’d be sitting at Ray’s, at two or three or four in the morning, and feel this weird twinge. When I looked up from my books to the people around me – truckers, people who’d come off the interstate for coffee to make another mile, the occasional crazy – I’d have that same feeling that I did the day my mother announced the separation. Like I didn’t belong there, and should have been at home, asleep in my bed, like everyone else I’d see at school in a few hours. But just as quickly, it would pass, everything settling back into place around me. And when Julie came back around with her coffeepot, I’d push my cup to the edge of the table, saying without words what we both knew well – that I’d be staying for a while.
My stepsister, Thisbe Caroline West, was born the day before my graduation, weighing in at six pounds, fifteen ounces. My father called the next morning, exhausted.
‘I’m so sorry, Auden,’ he said, ‘I hate to miss your speech.’